By Jeremy Stahl
As the summer tourist season draws to a close in New York, so too winds down the high period for one of the more peculiar attractions the city has to offer: Sunday church services in Harlem, which bring in thousands of foreign travelers each week. While the practice has been the topic of debate for years, I discovered it only last spring, when two friends were visiting from France. In addition to a list of more traditional tourist destinations, the couple wanted to experience an old-fashioned gospel service. Though I was uncomfortable at the prospect of joining other underdressed white gawkers observing how "locals" pray, I reluctantly decided to go.
At Kelly Temple, we joined about 100 others in the church balcony, cordoned off by ropes. At the start of the morning service, the pastors and church leaders blessed us, giving a special welcome to "all the visitors today, especially those from France and Spain." Some of the visitors stood up along with the parishioners during the more animated portions of the ceremony, even joining in the call-and-response.
I have always considered prayer an intensely serious and personal act — even when conducted publicly — so witnessing the spectacle of 100-plus tourists watching over a religious ceremony from an observer's gallery was disconcerting. But the bizarre sight made me wonder why tourists would include such stops on their itineraries and how some Harlem-based worshippers could have become so accustomed to large groups of white and Asian tourists gawking at them.
At least 60 of Harlem's 338 churches take part in the gospel sightseeing trade. Twenty-five years ago, the thought of sending visitors to Harlem for any reason was abhorrent to New York's tourism board. Now, thanks to all the tourists in the pews, Harlem is one of the top places for international vacationers to visit in New York.
The church services — and the neighborhood itself — became mainstream attractions after the Harlem Chamber of Commerce realized it could tap into the mythical place that gospel and jazz music — and African-American worship services — hold in the minds of many foreigners. In the 1980s, Lloyd Williams, president of the chamber, went to Europe with former New York Secretary of State Basil Paterson — the father of the current governor — to promote Harlem as a tourist destination. "The further we got away from New York, the better the image of Harlem was," says Williams.
French and German publications began covering Harlem tourism and the churches, encouraging more tourists to venture above 96th Street. Eventually the city's established tourism industry — the hotels, the guidebooks, the tourism board and the guided bus tours — recognized the neighborhood's economic potential.
Since then, tourists have flocked to the churches by the busloads, sometimes as part of guided tours and sometimes individually on the advice of guidebooks, hotel concierges, travel agents and friends. Many of the churches have well-developed systems for welcoming visitors, with special greeters at the doors and prominently displayed house rules forbidding flash photography, eating, drinking, shorts and flip-flops. Ceremonies usually start at 11 a.m., and most visitors take in the choir performance and announcement portions of the service before departing prior to the start of the sermon.